The Other Line Really Is Moving Faster Than Yours

By Debra Kelly on Friday, December 19, 2014
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“Patience is a nobler motion than any deed.” —C.A. Bartol

In A Nutshell

We’ve all been there; we get in line, hoping that we’ll be out of the store in no time, and we stand and wait and watch everyone else get waited on first while we’re held up. It turns out, it’s not your imagination—you really do keep picking the slow lane. Your chances of picking a problem-free lane are slim, and with the randomness of problems that can crop up ahead of you, it’s likely that you’re going to watch people pass you—all the time. There’s a way around that, but our perceptions don’t approve of it. The serpentine line is much more efficient, but because it doesn’t seem that way, we’re likely to have to keep rolling the dice.

The Whole Bushel

You’re checking out at a store, and you’re presented with a couple of different options. You hop in the line you think is going to go the fastest and, invariably, you’re wrong. Suddenly you’re stuck standing in line, watching as the other lines go flying past you. You might even try to jump into another line, and it’s only then that your original line starts moving.

Been there, done that, and it turns out that the world really is working against you.

There’s a whole science that’s been built around it, and it’s called queuing theory. It’s based around the idea that in order for a place—whether it’s a bank, a grocery store or a call center—to properly deal with a line of customers, there needs to be a minimum number of lines based on the number of customers (or calls) that the center has to deal with.

The foundation for the work was laid in 1909, when an engineer in Copenhagen was trying to figure out how many lines were needed for a switchboard network. It wasn’t just dependent on the average number of calls, but maximum and minimum numbers as well, along with the average duration of the wait.

And that’s why you’re pretty much guaranteed to be in the wrong line. One brief interruption in service means that there’s a holdup that travels down the line, backing it up like a traffic jam. And because holdups are random occurrences, while you’re standing behind a problematic or talkative person, you’re going to be watching at least one of the lines around you moving faster. Probability means that getting through a line quickest just isn’t in your favor. If there are five lines in the store, your chances of picking the right one are only one in five, and the result can change at any minute.

That’s not the only thing at work here, either. We’re also pretty constantly at the mercy of something called the universe-victim theory, which states that we only really notice things when it’s impacting us in some way. We don’t see when we’re in the fast lane, we’re only consciously aggravated when we notice people passing us. When we’re benefiting, it doesn’t bother us and we don’t recognize it.

We also have a tendency to see patterns in places where there are none, called illusory correlation. That happens when we start to think that, for example, the line’s slowed down solely because we’ve jumped into it. The problem with the person in front of us actually has nothing to do with us, but since we think we’re the center of the universe, it’s all happening because we picked that line and we’re in a hurry to get home and make sure the DVR is set properly.

There’s a way around the problem, but it will probably never, ever be fully utilized. The fair way of queuing is for everyone to get in one long line—like we see at amusement parks or banks—and split off to the next available register. That way, no one person is holding up a line of people behind them. Even though the random problems are still happening, we completely avoid them.

So why is it unlikely to ever happen? People don’t like to see a hugely long line; it’s more intimidating than a handful of short ones, and as a species it’s been found we’d much prefer to take our chances. Psychological factors win over mathematics, and we’re more willing to roll the dice in getting through a line with three people in it instead of waiting behind 30 others.

Show Me The Proof

Wired: What’s Up With That: Why You Always Seem to Choose the Slowest Line
BBC Future: Why other queues always seem to move faster than yours